In West Bengal, violence against women has been trivialised into being ammunition for the power conflict between political parties
West Bengal has been irking for change. That is why Trinamool Congress’s (TMC) election buzzword, ‘Poriborton’ or ‘change’ humoured the masses of Bengal, who voted for it. While many of us now sit to discuss what we really mean by ‘change’, at that time it probably meant bringing in a new force that would enrich democratic politics in West Bengal, bring in new agendas and improvement of governance systems, create a formidable oppositional politics in the State and West Bengal’s first woman Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee.
Monobina Gupta writes “The 2011 polls may be billed as the great unraveling of West Bengal, its politics and culture – but also, I think, of gender relations. Banerjee is on the verge of acquiring a unique status, becoming the first woman head of a state well known for its misogynist culture, notwithstanding many claims to the contrary.”
It is also interesting to note here that Gupta, while situating Mamata’s predicament amidst ‘Bengal’s thriving culture of male chauvinism’, clearly articulates that in spite of the various ways in which this leader has managed to shake a few myths and stereotypes which continue to exist in this Land of Renaissance, she does not have the adequate feminist analytical tools to deal with her predicament. It is this sheer lack of an adequate feminist ideology that could partially explain her almost awkward and misinformed responses to the several incidents of violence against women that have recently been highlighted by the media in the State.
Now coming back to the rallying point ‘change’, I think what most people in Bengal were waiting for was a break in the ‘vicious cycle of violence’ that the political culture seems to have continuously promoted all these years. The question is not about ‘track records’ and who had a worse history of violence against women during their years of governance in comparison to whom. The question is whether we can break out of it.
Maitree, an autonomous women’s network in West Bengal, observed a somber Women’s Day this year in the context of the rising cases of rape against women in West Bengal. Maitree also organised a protest rally this month calling attention of the political actors to the fact that ‘Our bodies are not battlefields or spaces to show prowess’.
According to data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau, West Bengal has continuously recorded the 2nd highest incidents of rape in India, for the last seven years (2004-2010). Between, 2006-2010, the incidents of rape across the country increased by 15 per cent but increased by 34 per cent, in West Bengal.
In the media, in February alone, at least nine cases of rape have been reported. Amongst the reported cases were — a woman who was trying to return home from a night club in Park Street, raped inside a car; a woman in Baranagar, who had gone out in the early morning to pick papers; a woman in Katwa who had gone to a businessman to take orders for sewing clothes, a young girl in Falta who had gone missing on her way to a private tutor, and was gang-raped; a deaf and mute girl admitted to a hospital in Bankura and raped by a doctor pretending to examine her; a woman in Egra raped while she was closing up her shop at nine in the evening and returning home; an Adivasi woman employed as the helper of a mason in Siuri was gang- raped while returning home; the wife of a carpenter was invited by an official of the Forest Department on the pretext that he would give low cost wood for her husband and raped near the forest in Chanchol, Malda.
The rape victim of Baranagar died of internal bleeding because of the callousness of the police and the administration. In the Falta gang rape case, the police initially refused to record the victim’s complaint but the Calcutta High Court Orders forced the Falta police station to investigate the allegation. The police inaction emboldened the accused, who kept threatening the victim’s father to withdraw the case. The father was forced to stay in the hospital premises fearing an attempt on his life. The accused also ransacked the victim’s house.
Scanning the media reportage on this issue not only highlights a tragic ‘comedy of errors’ on the part of the ruling government in ensuring speedy access to justice for the victims but more seriously, also shows a hyper-charged reactionary political response clearly indicating a subterranean political and violent conflict that has been brewing between the Left Front and the TMC ever since it has come to power.
Mamata has resorted to denial, escapism, emotional reactions and taken careless moral positions on the incidents reported in the media. Her administration has not helped her out either. The attitudes of police officers, at local police stations, who are dealing with these cases, are alarming. Even though there is the presence of a women and children’s protection cell in the headquarters in Lal Bazar and the Deputy Commissioner of police, herself a woman cop, has shown an outstanding commitment to duty specifically in the Park street case, the story of other officers is not the same. From making sarcastic or snide remarks, to acting late on the cases, to not having women officers deal with the cases, the local police stations show an ineptness, ignorance and a total blindness to dealing with issues of rape sensitively which may even amount to criminal negligence on their part.
The abysmal record of increasing violence and state apathy calls for better ministerial intelligence and political astuteness in dealing with violence against women in the State. The only glimmer of hope lies in the fact that more and more women are reporting cases of rape in the State, and some of the victims have taken on brave and courageous battles in spite of this hostile political milieu.
Sayantoni Datta is an independent researcher working on human rights, women’s rights and environment justice issues.